Etienne Bourgois and Eric Karsenti aboard Tara


5 February 2011

Etienne Bourgois and Eric Karsenti aboard Tara

It’s the first time that Etienne Bourgois and Eric Karsenti, the two co-directors of the Tara Oceans expedition, have found themselves together onboard Tara at the same time. This trip is an opportunity for them to discuss a number of issues and make plans with the current team. At the end of March Tara Oceans will celebrate its one and a half year anniversary since departing from Lorient on September 5th, 2009. This is a chance to assess what progress has been made as we near the midway point, and discuss the future.

Vincent Hilaire: We’re almost at the halfway point, what lessons have you two learned from this first half of the expedition?

Etienne Bourgois: “The sampling we’ve achieved with Tara has exceeded our expectations. We’ve proven that even with a small boat like Tara [36 meters, ed.], it’s possible to sample. We can go almost anywhere because of our size, while maintaining safety, even in rough seas. That’s how we were able to sample in the ice fields of the Weddell Sea. There aren’t many boats that can do that. The challenge for us now is to maintain this pace and quality over time. For example we have to take extra care to keep the equipment in good condition. We don’t have any spare.
The other eye-opener has been the meeting and greeting and consequent buzz that surrounds Tara. Everywhere we stopped, children came to visit us. We also met scientists, journalists, politicians, diplomats and business leaders.”
Eric Karsenti: “Over the last year and a half we successfully managed to structure the sampling methods and then organise the transporting of this material to the laboratories.
Another challenge we had to face, and once again rose to, was learning how to sail strategically. On board Tara, by playing around with all the meteorological and satellite information at our disposal, we can now get to places across the ocean at a fixed time, in order to locate the exact body of water we’re looking for. So we developed a method of routing, like the one used by yacht racers, except that here the challenge is to be in the right place at the right time to sample the micro-organisms.

In a year and a half we’ve performed 90 scientific stations. By the end of the expedition in December 2012, we will have done at least 250. The first 30 stations are currently being analyzed in the laboratories, the samples of which were taken in the Mediterranean. It’s important to understand that having acquired the data it takes a long time before the results can be published. This is due to the delay in sending the samples to the laboratories and also because of the diversity of data to be analyzed.”

V.H.: At the end of this one and a half year scientific adventure what has surprised you the most, or continues to surprise you?

Eric Karsenti: “What continues to surprise me is the work, and the extraordinary energy being deployed by the scientific community involved in Tara Oceans to refine the sampling and analytical techniques. And the quality of the results achieved within this research environment which has been completely invented for Tara from scratch. We’ve managed to sequence organisms ‘end to end’, from viruses to fish larvae, it’s remarkable. No team has ever embarked upon such a project.
The sequencing which is being undertaken by Genoscope d’Evry in France, on micro-organisms that we send them, has also obliged them to develop new methods of genomic analysis. In fact, this project has driven all the partners to innovate within their fields.
What still surprises me is how difficult it is to find the money to fund this project which is going to advance our knowledge significantly.”

Etienne Bourgois: “What always surprises me is the quality of the choice of station being performed throughout the different oceans. The coordination between the teams on land and at sea is the key to our success. Today’s satellite equipment allows us to identify bodies of water within these vast open spaces, and with the equipment we have onboard, such as the thermosalinographs, we can pretty much find a needle in a haystack.”

V.H.: What have been the challenges, the areas we need to focus on at the end of this year and a half of sailing?

Eric Karsenti: “Our flow cytometer for example, which we use to count the particles in a drop of water, stopped working. It was a prototype but without having its American designer on board regularly, and given that our biologists – who are specialised in imaging – have not had any training, this tool has turned out to be useless. But we’re going to try another machine.

There’s also the SPIM, this very sophisticated microscope. We were all ready and able to use it, but we just ran out of time on board.”

Etienne Bourgois: “Those have been two of our setbacks but on the other hand throughout this year and a half we’ve expanded our stock of immersion instruments including the Multinet which samples organisms at five different depths within the same column of water. And more recently we launched a new experiment called Manta. This net allows us to detect the presence of plastic residues.”

V.H.: V.H.: How is Tara bearing up having travelled 25,000 miles since first departing?

Etienne Bourgois: “In a year and a half we’ve already travelled the distance around the Earth. But we still have 38,000 miles to go before the end of the expedition. The stopover in Cape Town last summer allowed us to improve, among other things, the performance of the two engines. The shafts and gears were serviced. Today, despite their 23,000 hours of operation, the engines are working very well.
In contrast, we often have electrical problems due to all the energy that must be supplied to run the onboard equipment. The next major servicing will take place in Auckland in September and we’ll have to change a lot of the rigging on deck. We’re also currently looking for a spare anchor having lost one in Antarctica.
Our stop off in Valparaiso will give us the chance to replace the sail cloth which is worn out, as well as reinstall a more efficient air conditioning system in the dry lab where all the instruments cause the temperature to rise quickly.

It’s important to be here with Eric to make this onboard assessment and plan ahead. We won’t be doing much science during this trip through the channels, it’s primarily an onboard seminar.”

V.H.: And with the future in mind, how’s the budget doing?

Etienne Bourgois: “At the moment we’re about 25% short of the total budget required to complete the expedition. It isn’t much but at the same time it is a lot of money. Trying to source this funding takes up a lot of our time. And the expedition won’t end once Tara has returned to the port in Lorient. In 2013, it will be time to present the first results.

I also wonder about some of the partnerships, like the one with PNUE, which I haven’t found to be very effective.”

V.H.: After a year and a half of this expedition, as this adventure reestablishes the connection between science, humanity and even philosophy, what is your message now and what are you hearing from politicians for example?

Eric Karsenti: “We have to improve the way we talk about science to the political world. It’s not one of our strong points. But, the data are there. At the end of the 19th century there were nearly two billion humans on Earth. Soon there will be seven billion. It’s crucial that we address this issue regarding the impact humans are having on the environment. Science can’t save the world: it’s a way of conveying knowledge. I don’t want to be alarmist, but rather bring people up to date, so that the word can be spread from the individual to the collective, thus informing the key decisions and beyond that alerting people to the environmental consequences of our current economic model.”

Etienne Bourgois: “When it comes to the environment we need a global governance with real powers. What we all want is to live better and not be worse off. The solution, in my opinion, starts with better distribution of wealth. It’s often said nowadays that everything is too complex, but the solutions are there, we’re just not taking the time to understand them.

We need our economic model to target people and not money. This expedition allows us to discover marine biodiversity, and it’s made me realise that this is where we’ve come from. If we want to live and not just survive, maybe this is the thing that will save us. We’re not the link to everything, despite our predator status. And we’re not going to get very far unless we fully understand this. Plankton is intrinsically linked to our life and affects us in terms of health, diet and energy. It even produces the air that we breathe, so our very existence depends upon on this micro world. I hope that Rio 2012, the forthcoming Earth Summit Conference on Sustainable Development will signal a decisive step. A rendez-vous for all of us, and one not to be missed.”

Interview by Vincent Hilaire